By Ekta R. Garg
October 15, 2014
Rated: Bookmark it!
In the midst of a war a woman risks her own life and her daughter’s life to help others. She hides people when they seek sanctuary, and she doesn’t turn anyone away—teaching her daughter some of life’s most important lessons in the process. J.L. Witterick takes a real story of the Holocaust and uses it as the basis for her sparse but powerful novel My Mother’s Secret.
Born to a Ukrainian father and Polish mother, Helena grows up in Germany with her brother, Damian. Although their father often exerts his strong will over their mother, Franciszka, Helena and Damian learn to share the good things in life with each other and their parents. When their father expresses pro-Nazi views at the beginning of World War II, however, Franciszka knows she can’t stay with him anymore. She doesn’t agree with the Nazis, and she doesn’t want her children growing up with that ideology. Her husband makes it clear that if she leaves she shouldn’t come back.
They move to Poland to the small town of Sokal, and for a time Helena feels safe. She gets a job and meets a man who catches her interest, and he begins to reciprocate. Helena begins to believe that life will get better, that moving to Sokal will mean better things for all of them.
When tragedy takes Damian away from them, Franciszka and Helena almost buckle under their grief. But even the grief of losing a son doesn’t diminish Franciszka’s compassion for others. Despite the fact that Sokal is a small dot on the map of Poland, the town isn’t immune to German invasion. Soldiers arrive, and the local Jewish population feels threatened. Some of the Jewish residents come to Franciszka for help, and Helena watches as her mother does what she can to help those persecuted for their cultural heritage.
Franciszka and Helena hide two families and a single solider, but none of the refugees know about the others. Better to keep them safe by keeping them ignorant, Franciszka says, and Helena sees the truth of this. She lives with a constant fear of getting caught, but she understands that her mother made the right choice by saying “yes” every time someone knocked on their door in the middle of the night.
Using viewpoints that toggle between Helena and the people she and her mother help, author J.L. Witterick tells the story in My Mother’s Secret with short chapters that almost read like diary entries. Witterick avoids detailed descriptions, which lend the novel a sparse feel in its opening chapters.
Readers might need several pages to get into the novel’s pace, but the sparseness lends to the book’s dramatic impact. At the end the story will leave a strong impression as only stories about the Holocaust can. Only 60 of Sokal’s 6000 Jews survived the war. The real Franciszka and her daughter saved 30 of them.
Knowing that, I highly recommend My Mother’s Secret.